Sermon from August 6th, 2017

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“Basic Christianity #9: The Conversion of the Apostle Paul”

Acts 9:1-19; Matthew 18:1-14

By Pastor John Bent

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Sermon Text
Good morning!  I have good news, it’s the first Sunday in August, 2017 and the message from the angels that first Christmas is still true. “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the city of David a Savior has been born, he is Christ the Lord.”  Jesus is still the source of everlasting joy that nothing in this world can take away.

This is the 9th message in our sermon series on Basic Christianity and we are in Acts 9.  If you’ve missed some of these messages and want to review, they’re on our church website.
Our focus this morning is conversion, specifically the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Here’s how Acts chapter 9 begins, “Meanwhile Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” Acts 9:1

Before Jesus transformed his heart, Saul was not a nice man. If you saw him coming down the street, you would avoid him. Saul was crazy.  Some kind of irrational, even psychotic hatred and resentment had taken over his heart.

Who would dare to love a guy like this? Jesus. Remember what Jesus prayed from the cross. “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”  Saul heard Stephen pray the same thing even as he was being stoned to death. “Jesus, do not hold this sin against them.” Maybe it was the memory of those words that drove Saul into such a vicious frenzy.

So how do help a guy like Saul?  How do you change a heart that has become so filled with hate? With men it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.  The Apostle Paul shares the story of how the Lord transformed his heart three times in the book of Acts. The first is here in Acts 9. Imagine Paul telling his story to Luke who wrote it down for us.

I was so intent on destroying these followers of Jesus that I went to Caiaphas, the high priest who crucify Jesus and asking him for letter to the Jewish synagogues in Damascus. My purpose was to find the Christians that had fled Jerusalem and bring them back in chains. Damascus is a hard 3 day walk north of Jerusalem.
All this was of course illegal just like the crucifixion of Jesus and the stoning of Stephen, but that didn’t stop me. I was so threatened by this Jesus and the stories of his resurrection that we would do anything to root out these Christians and destroy their lies.

It was noon on the third day and were almost to Damascus. Suddenly an intense light enveloped us. The Bible tells us that God lives in unapproachable light and Jesus told us he was the light of the world. Now I know it’s true.

The light was so bright it knocked me to the ground.  Then a voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  I cried out, “Who are you, Lord? I think I already knew the answer and it terrified me!”  The voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men who were with me saw the light and heard the sound but they didn’t understand what was being said. They thought it was thunder out of a blue sky. I was staggering around completely blind, so they led me to Damascus to get help. I was blind for 3 days and did not eat or drink. It was like being in a tomb – like what happened to Jonah - or to Jesus.

While all this was going on, the Lord gave a vision to a Christian man named Ananias in Damascus. The Lord gave him the specific address where I was staying. He told him to go lay his hands on me and pray for me so I would recover my sight.

Ananias had heard about me. He knew I had come to Damascus to arrest Christians and bring them in chains back to Jerusalem. He questioned the Lord about the wisdom of this.

But Jesus told him, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

I prided myself on being a brave man. I saw myself as the lion of God. But my courage was nothing compared to the courage of these saints.  Ananias obeyed the Lord’s command.  I later learned his courage was motivated by love and came from Jesus living in his heart.

So Ananias laid his hands on my eyes. They told me that something like scales fell off my eyes and I was able to see.  Really see. I thought I could see before but I was spiritually blind. The Lord miraculously restored my physical sight. But that wasn’t the biggest miracle. The greatest miracle was that he restored my spiritual sight and changed my heart.

Maybe change isn’t the right word. He transformed my heart, he made it brand new. He took out my heart of stone and gave me a heart of flesh, just like he promised in Ezekiel.

My desire had always been to serve the Lord, but I had I become conformed to the world. My whole life was dedicated to winning the approval of others. I didn’t have time for love. I didn’t even know what the word meant. I saw every circumstance as an opportunity to conquer the competition. The more successful I became; the more isolated and empty I felt and that made me mad. I had to take out my rage on somebody and I chose the Christians.

When Jesus met me on the Damascus road, he didn’t condemn me. He didn’t scold me or ridicule me. He didn’t punish me. But he did love me enough to tell me the truth.

I learned God didn’t give us the law as a way to achieve our own righteous. Isaiah was right when he said we have none.  The Lord gave us his law to reveal the depth of our depravity and need for a Savior.
He called his servant Ananias to lay hands on me.  How despicable I must have seemed to him, yet he did it anyway.  As I look back, I see now that he was motivated by Jesus’ love that had filled his heart.

God used him to heal me, baptized me, and feed me from his own table all in the name of Jesus. I’d never experienced this kind of love before. I knew the OT stuff about God being love. But it was just theology, I’d never experienced it. Yet here in the hands of a man named Ananias, I found out the Jesus was the love of God incarnate.  My heart had become hard and shriveled, and I was a bitter egotistical man. There was no room for anyone but myself. But Jesus opened my eyes and he enlarged my heart so that it began to ache in a way I’d never experienced before.  I began to suffer from an enlarged heart!  I was telling the truth when I wrote to my friends in the church in Philippi “I hold you all in my heart”.

After Jesus came into my heart, I changed my name from Saul to Paul. Some say it was because I was no longer ministering to the Jews but to the Gentiles.  That’s partially right, but the main reason was because a I was a new man – a new creation, the old was gone, the new had come. And I had nothing to do with it. It was all from Jesus who loved me when I was the least loveable person on the planet.
I’ve often wondered, maybe that’s why he chose me. If God can change the heart of a man like Saul, he can change the heart of anyone. If he can forgive me and wash away my sin, he can forgive anybody and give them a new heart. That’s the message he gave me.

Jesus said, “Unless you repent and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I thought that was foolishness.  I was proud of how sophisticated and spiritually mature I was. The reality was I was one of the most childish selfish people around. I thought I was leading the parade into the kingdom of God. I had no idea how depraved I really was. But Jesus did. I was a lost sheep and didn’t know it, but he came and met me where I was.

Jesus said the good shepherd left the 99 in the fold to go find the lost lamb. That was me. He picked me up and carried me home. He didn’t beat me or scold me or throw me in jail. He loved me. He set me free from my prison of hate. Because of him, I’ll never be the same.

I learned, you will never get to heaven by being religious. I know - I tried. You’ll never get there by being a good person – the harder I tried to be good, the worse I became. I learned we are all sinners and the only way a sinner gets into heaven is if Jesus brings him.

Jesus loves you and he gave his life on a cross so that your sins could be forgiven. If you will confess your sins and ask him to forgive you, he will. If you invite him into your heart and trust him, he will write your name in his book of life.  He remove your sin hardened heart and give you a new heart, a heart transplant, a fresh heart, no longer childish, but childlike.

He’s the only one who can do that for you. There must be a time when this spiritual conversion begins for each of us.  It will happen differently for all of us. But it must have a beginning point when we respond to Jesus’ call to follow him.
We should also remember that conversion is not a once and done experience. It certainly begins at a point in time, but is ongoing, morning by morning, day by day, and I die to my own way, and am born again to follow Jesus into whatever he has for me to do.

Christ Lutheran Church • 5150 River Lakes Parkway, Whitefish, MT 59937 • 406-862-2615

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